Many Europeans have their doubts about the eastward expansion of the European Union but would be happy to welcome richer neighbours, including Switzerland, a new survey has revealed.
The Eurobarometer poll conducted across the European Union found that almost half of those questioned - 42 per cent - thought Switzerland and Norway should be the first countries to enter the EU, although neither country is seeking membership at present.
According to the survey, most Europeans felt uninformed and uninspired about plans to extend EU membership to ten eastern European countries as well as Cyprus and Malta. The next round of enlargement is expected to begin as early as 2004.
An EU spokesman, Jean-Christophe Filori, said the results showed that EU officials and governments needed to do more to educate Europeans about the Union's affairs.
The new findings were made public on Monday, one day after Belgium took over the rotating presidency of the EU for a six-month period. Belgium has assured Switzerland that it will support the country's efforts to forge new bilateral agreements with the EU.
Although membership of the 15-member body is not yet on the cards for Switzerland, the government is keen to improve cooperation in a number of areas. In 1999 it agreed a set of seven bilateral treaties with the EU, which have yet to come into force. Belgium is one of several EU countries which have still to ratify the treaties.
Despite the delay, Switzerland and the EU are intent on embarking on a new round of bilateral negotiations. The EU wants to involve Switzerland in the fight against customs fraud and tax evasion, while Switzerland is eager to join the Schengen and Dublin agreements on border and asylum issues.
On Thursday Belgium is expected to finalise a package of 10 issues to form the basis for future negotiations.
The Swiss government said last week that negotiations could begin as soon as possible on outstanding bilateral issues.
swissinfo with agencies